The students of Wood River High School are ready to raise the curtain on a new theatrical production. High school theater groups are perhaps best known for their forays into comedies and musicals, but this troupe will set their sights on a more serious affair with D.W. Gregory’s drama “Radium Girls.”
In December 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie made an announcement that shook the scientific world and had ramification in countless disciplines: the discovery of radium.
The newly discovered element quickly became popular, used in luminescent paint and introduced as a healthy additive in toothpaste, food and spa water, and was soon regarded as a kind of miracle ingredient.
The most significant discovery associated with radium was its curative powers as a cancer treatment. The Curies found that tumor-forming cells decayed faster than their healthy counterparts when exposed to the element’s radioactivity (another term coined by the husband and wife duo).
That discovery, in conjunction with a few others, earned the Curies the Nobel Prize in physics.
The medicinal qualities of radium also, perhaps understandably, led to the aforementioned regard of the element as a cure-all ingredient, beneficial in all applications. Of course, that’s not the case.
That revelation formed the backbone of a major scandal and court case in the 1920s, which in turn gave birth to the play “Radium Girls.”
The two-act drama tells the true story of Grace Fryer (played here by Sarah Feltman), a dial painter in a New Jersey watch factory, who fights to expose the dangers and realities of radiation sickness after she and many of her colleagues suffer mysterious illnesses attributed to the radioactive paint with which they worked.
She and her compatriots quickly became the objects of national attention. Soon dubbed the “radium girls,” the group sued their employers and went to court in 1928.
The suit was a landmark legal occasion, with lasting repercussions in American labor and safety laws. Fryer died five years later of radiation poisoning at age 34.
With Women’s History Month beginning Sunday, the Wood River High School Drama Department will be counting down the days
by producing “Radium Girls” on stage and honoring the brave women who fought for workers’ rights almost 100 years ago.
“It’s a good challenge to tackle something a lot more serious right after tackling such a farce,” said senior Sarah Feltman, referencing the school’s autumn production of “Get Smart.”
Feltman said she and her co-stars are “trying to address a historical topic and give it the honor and respect that it deserves.”
“Our department doesn’t normally do too many serious plays, but when we do I find they can be some our best,” she said. “It’s going to be a really intriguing show. We have a great cast. A lot of people worked really hard.”
As Feltman said, everyone involved has put their all into bringing “Radium Girls” to the stage in a dynamic and historically respectful way, but some, like actress Gracie Peterson, went the extra mile.
“There was a book that came out a few years ago and I found it in a bookstore when I learned we were doing this play,” Peterson explained. “I decided to read it and find out as much as I could about what was happening. That really helped me get a good background knowledge on the play.”
Feltman praised her castmate’s studiousness, saying, “She’s really helped inform all of us on some further stuff we can do to make this more realistic and more historically accurate.”
Though the play deals with some heavy material, the script moves at a fast pace, with plenty of wit and humor. Of course, none of that is meant to make light of the struggles and sufferings of the radium girls; instead, that approach helps to humanize the characters.
“Generally, I’m a really happy person and I love acting in comedies, so this was different,” said senior Max Gardenswartz. “It’s something I’d never really experienced—reaching those low lows in my acting.”
Drama teacher Karl Nordstrom said that while this play offered an additional challenge and presented something really out of the ordinary for his department, he felt this was the cast for the job.
Twenty-three actors fill more than 60 roles, tackling material that Nordstrom sees as being very relevant today, despite the temporal setting of the play.
“It’s pretty timely. I wasn’t trying to make any kind of political statements or anything, but adversarial relations with big corporations is something we see in the news right now,” he said. “These women were really the first small group of people to sue a big corporation, and the dirty tactics the corporations use are the same things you see today.”
The student production will run five times at the Wood River High School Performing Arts Theater in the Community Campus, 1050 Fox Acres Road, Hailey. The first performance is tonight, Feb. 26, at 6 p.m. Another 6 p.m. show will follow on Thursday, Feb. 27. Friday will see the curtain rise at 7 p.m. and Saturday boasts two shows: a 1 p.m. matinee and a 7:30 p.m. evening performance.
Adult tickets cost $8. High school students, seniors and veterans can enjoy a $3 discount on that price. Middle school students will be admitted for $3 and younger children may attend for just $1. Tickets may be purchased at the door.